‘Express your passion and your anger on the dance floor’: Shimmying señoritas take over Battersea barge

A Battersea barge may not seem the obvious location for a flamenco fiesta, but Andalucían traditions are being brought to the capital’s riverside by an ambitious language school.

Red and white polka dot lanterns deck the ceiling and jugs of sangria wait to be poured as gentle Spanish guitar music plays and ladies wait in elegantly ruffled dresses.

Clouds cover an anaemic sky and rain coats the pavements on a gloomy Friday, but a spark of excitement is ready to ignite as Battersea Spanish, a culture hub and language school, gets the party started.

The school’s dance teacher Fenella Juanita loves being able to see her students develop in confidence and proficiency, even over the course of an evening.

“Flamenco is such a wonderful way of expressing yourself. You can express your passion, your anger, anything, and leave it all out on the dance floor,” she says.

Revellers start appearing in dapper suits and traditional flamenco dresses and cluster by the few chairs pushed to the edges of the room so as not to encroach on the hardwood soon-to-be-danced-on floor.

As more people begin crowding the floor dancers are split into two groups, intermediates and beginners, to learn the Sevilla, a traditional Andalucían dance.

The intermediate group confidently follow the steps with seemingly impeccable natural rhythm, so I go to join the beginners instead.

There were pained expressions and awkward stances suggest that the other dancers are also new and haven’t yet got the ‘fire’ of Latin dancing.

One person lighting up the dance floor is Takako Uchida, a city worker who laughs when I ask her age but refuses to answer.

While others laugh and play their hair, Takako keenly listens for instructions, hands firmly on hips, leaning forward in concentration.

Everyone else fumbles through the steps, but she focuses, retaining her dancer’s posture, stamping firmly in time and rolling her wrists to the approving murmurings of the crowd.

“I attended a flamenco school in Japan, but I never got to see a performance when I lived there as they were infrequent and expensive,” she says.

Takako had experience of flamenco dancing in her native Japan, but did not see a performance until leaving as they were infrequent and expensive.

Tonight she is gliding with purpose with dance partner Jonathan Guinea, 33, from Madrid, and offering tips to the trendy young couple next to them.

Jonathan attended his first flamenco class last week with the same school, but had never experienced these ‘Southern traditions’ before.

When the instructions end and the music begins, there is a striking change of atmosphere.

People start moving more naturally and less self-consciously as the crowds put what they have been taught to good use.

The event has attracted people from all walks of life, beginners from all over the world to aficionados with a wealth of experience.

Mahrie Coyle, 64, moved to the capital from Dunbarton 40 years ago, but has always had a passion for Spanish dancing.

“Flamenco has always had the same diverse appeal. Anyone can join in as long as you can follow a beat,” she said.

Mahrie owns a 25-year-old flamenco skirt but left it behind for the night as it is too wide to dance in on the crowded boat.

The groups begin to mingle again and the boat starts to shake with laughter, dancing and stamping feet.

The lights are low and are the music too loud for conversations but the floor is packed full of dancers and people weaving their way to and from the bar.

There are fewer men than women, so many ladies dance together, turning frantically and flinging out limbs, wiggling and whooping.

The dancing reaches a climax when teacher Fenella takes to the stage with renowned flamenco dancer Maria Vega to perform.

The crowd parts to watch them throw themselves into the dance, their skirts coming to life as awed spectators watch.

After awards have been presented to the best dressed and best dancers, I catch Takako by the row of coats, quietly packing away her full skirt and dancing shoes.

She tells me she is eagerly awaiting the chance to take to the floor again, but for now she is back in trainers for her commute home.

Picture courtesy of Sue Kellerman, with thanks

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